Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Coral dance of death: Glowing, glowing, gone

March 22, 2020

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/200315/news/coral-dance-of-death-glowing-glowing-gone-396418.html published on SundayTimes on 15.03.2020.

Sri Lanka’s foremost coral expert, Arjan Rajasuriya, recently received a call from an excited diver friend. “I’ve just gone diving and found varieties of corals that I had never seen, glowing with fluorescent colours. They looked really beautiful,” the friend said.

But the news held no excitement for Mr. Rajasuriya, only sadness. “Look, those are not a new variety of coral: they are just dying corals performing the dance of death,” he explained to his friend.

Coral is created by tiny creatures called coral polyphs, whose hard exoskeletons become part of the coral. To obtain food, these polyps often build a harmonious symbiotic partnership with the zooxanthellae algae, which produce food through photosynthesis and become the corals’ food supplier and also their source of colour.

Increasing temperatures cause the algae to leave the polyps, leaving the latter without food and vulnerable to disease. The coral gradually goes white without the algae and dies – a process called coral bleaching.

Dying corals performing the dance of death

“During this process of coral bleaching some of the corals can appear much more colourful and brightly fluorescent. This is a spectacular sight – but it is only the dance of death of the corals,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.

As the sea surface temperature rises as a result of global warming, corals are at risk of dying everywhere and are the most threatened organisms on the planet, he added.

Coral bleaching is a serious problem in Sri Lanka with the live coral coverage of number of reefs having fallen to just 10-20 per cent of what they used to be. This is a worrying fact globally, with Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, for example, losing more than half of its live coral coverage mainly due to bleaching.

In order to highlight the impact of global warming on fragile coral ecosystems, a global campaign was launched last week on World Wildlife Day, March 3, called “Glowing, glowing, gone”, displaying three new colours symbolising the hues that dying corals take on prior to bleaching.

The campaign was initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme and The Ocean Agency, an international NGO dedicated to marine conservation, partnered by graphic design giant Adobe and the colour design company, Pantone Colour Institute.

In a press release, Adobe described how corals produce brightly-coloured chemicals as a kind of sunscreen against fatally high water temperatures and sun exposure. “This glowing phenomenon, called coral fluorescence, is a final line of defence before the coral dies and bleaches to white. It’s been described as ‘a most beautiful death’,” Adobe said.

“Only a handful of people have ever witnessed the highly visual spectacle of corals ‘glowing’ in vibrant colours in a desperate bid to survive underwater heatwaves,”  The Ocean Agency founder, Richard Vevers, said in a statement. “Yet this phenomenon is arguably the ultimate indicator of one of our greatest environmental challenges — ocean warming and the loss of coral reefs.

“Glowing corals are a highly visual sign of climate change — an attention-grabbing indicator that we’ve reached a tipping point for the planet. We’ve turned these warning colours into colours to inspire action that everyone can use.”

 

The new colors

Pantone, Adobe and The Oceans Agency together captured the exact colours of coral fluorescence and named them Glowing Yellow, Glowing Blue and Glowing Purple

Pantone, Adobe and The Oceans Agency together captured the exact colours of coral fluorescence and named them Glowing Yellow, Glowing Blue and Glowing Purple. They say this is the palette of colours of climate change that call “citizens of the world to recognise Earth’s major ecosystems in peril”.

Why worry so much about coral reefs, Arjan Rajasuriya was asked. “Corals are like the canary in the coal mine, acting as an indicator of upcoming disasters,” he replied. “The ocean surface absorbs large amounts of climate change heat, and corals are the first sign of increasing temperatures.

“There will be more catastrophes – the excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make oceans more acidic, and that will also have an impact on fishing,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja rainforest reserve to be quadrupled in size

February 29, 2020
  • The Sinharaja Forest Reserve in southern Sri Lanka will be expanded fourfold through the incorporate of surrounding forests into the protected area.
  • The new reserve will span 36,000 hectares (88,960 acres), and will help conserve a biodiversity hotspot known for being home to a treasure trove of rare species found nowhere else on Earth.
  • Current threats to Sinharja and the surrounding forests include encroachment, hunting, logging, and gem mining.
  • As a forest reserve, the UNESCO World Heritage Site will allow for both the protection of the rainforest and sustainable and non-destructive forestry activities that are key to the livelihoods of local communities.

The Sinharaja rainforest harbors high endemism. Image courtesy of Vimukthi Weeratunga.

Published on Mongabay on 17.12.2020 https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/sri-lankas-sinharaja-rainforest-reserve-to-be-quadrupled-in-size/

Colombo – Sri Lanka plans to quadruple the size of the protected area inside its last viable rainforest, in a nod to the ecological significance of the region. The Sinharaja Forest Reserve currently spans 8,864 hectares (21,903 acres) in the island’s southwest and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 because of its rich and unique plant and animal life.

Over the years, however, this prime lowland rainforest  and the areas surrounding it have faced multiple threats, ranging from illegal logging and cardamom cultivation, to unauthorized settlements and gem mining. To counter this fragmentation of the forest, the Sri Lankan government has opted to incorporate surrounding forests into the reserve, effectively increasing the size of the protected area four times to 36,000 ha (88,960 acres).

The proposed expansion was signed last month by Maithripala Sirisena during the final days of his presidency, and is now awaiting formal notification via gazette.

Sri Lanka has two different types of protected areas: one managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the other by the Forest Department. Sinharaja falls under the jurisdiction of the latter, and the newly expanded area will be formally declared as part of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, to be governed under the Forest Ordinance.

The forests that surround it harbor similarly high levels of biodiversity and endemism as the core area, and the importance of bringing these forests under the protected area network was identified years ago. The National Conservation Review (NCR) published in 1997 proposed 12 such satellite forests to be declared as protected area for their conservation value. Known as the Sinharaja Adaviya (Sinharaja Range), this would create a contiguous forest complex comprising the existing reserve and the neighboring forests of Ayagama, Delgoda, Dellawa, Delmella-Yatagampitiya, Diyadawa, Kobahadukanda, Morapitiya-Runakanda-Neluketiya Mukalana, Warathalgoda, Silverkanda, Handapanella, Gongala and Paragala. Much of these have been proposed for absorption into the protected area under the new scheme.

Thilak Premakantha, a conservator with the Forest Department, told Mongabay that it took a long time for the demarcation of new boundaries, starting in early 2000. Generally, a gazette notification declaring a protected area runs into one or two pages, but the new gazette declaring the expansion of Sinharaja is 80 pages long. The draft is now being finalized, pending a vigorous process of verification of GPS coordinates, which is expected to delay the publication of the gazette notice by a few more weeks, Premakantha said.

The culmination of the years-long process will be a vindication of the strenuous work of local scientists and recognition that their recommendations have been given serious consideration, said Nimal Gunatilleke, emeritus professor at the University of Peradeniya. Gunatilleke was among the long-term campaigners calling for greater protection of the Sinharaja region, including through his opposition to a mechanized logging project in the 1970s there to produce plywood.

A biodiversity hotspot

Described in 2016, the Sinharaja tree snake (Dendrelaphis sinharajensis) is found only in the depths of the rainforest where many other species are yet to be discovered. Image courtesy of Mendis Wickremasinghe.

Researchers helped Sinharaja be recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, identifying more than 60% of its trees as endemic and many of them as rare. They also estimate the forest reserve is home to more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many birds, insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

According to Gunatilleke, in addition to its biodiversity significance, Sinharaja has tremendous value in terms of ecosystem services. “For example, the headwater of few of Sri Lanka’s main rivers such as Nilwala and Gin Ganga are enriched by the water that flows into them through the forests of the Sinharaja complex. So if not for biological diversity, we should protect these forests for our own survival,” he said.

In Sri Lanka, a forest reserve has similar status to a national park, both of which are managed by wildlife conservation authorities and where research and nature-based tourism are permitted. But unlike a national park, a forest reserve is potentially open to human activities, under a stringent permit system, thus allowing non-destructive forestry activities that are central to the livelihoods of communities living adjacent to the forests, Premakantha said.

This map shows the areas to be added to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve through a pending gazette regulation. Image courtesy of the Sri Lankan Forest Department.

Expanding the forest reserve in Sinharaja to include neighboring forests would help stave off a number of threats such as encroachment, hunting, logging, illegal gem mining, and overharvesting of forest products such as agarwood. “The new declaration would provide much-needed legal backing for the protection of these forests which contain high value of biological diversity,” said botanist Suranjan Fernando. “However, the next step is to ensure practical enforcement. With the expansion of the reserve area, the land extent that is to be monitored by forest officials is extensive. So it is important to establish more presence to ensure enforcement.”

Suranjan said villagers living close to Sinharaja need a sustainable management plan that would support the conservation aim of creating corridors to link the forests, to prevent fragmentation.

“These villages in between forest patches would require the setting up of planned home gardens which in turn can support the biodiversity corridors,” he said. A key crop cultivated in the area is tea, but tea plantations aren’t considered ecological friendly. Finding alternative livelihoods for tea growers living adjacent to the forests is a vital next step, Suranjan said.

The area is dotted by a number of traditional villages whose residents depend on a number forest services. These include the tapping of the kitul flower to collect syrup to make treacle and jaggery sugar, the harvesting of rattan climber for the production of natural cane, and the collection of herbs and firewood.

These traditional activities do no harm to the forest, and have allowed the villagers to live sustainably in the rainforest for centuries, Premakantha said, and thus should be encouraged over other, more destructive, practices.

“These villagers lived in harmony with nature, deriving many benefits from the forests,” he said. “It is poverty that converts some of them to engage in illegal and harmful practices.”

Banner image of a white monkey from the Sinharaja Forest Reserve in southern Sri Lanka, courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle.

Dragonfly migration

November 15, 2019

Published on SundayTimes on 27.10.2019

The possibility of mass migratoin of dragonflies across Sri Lanka was first published by SundayTimes on 2011. It is believed the same phenomena reported last Sunday.

Not only birds, but dragonflies too are found to be migrating long distances. The sudden increase of dragonflies in some areas of colombo suggest their annual mass migration happened last week.

Sudden influx of dragonflies were best felt by those live in coastal belts as they usually arrive as a wave. The coastal community in near Dehiwala railway station confirms they sudden influx of dragonflies on Sunday 20th of October. “It was around 8.30 or 9 in the night that these creatures start coming. They flew directly into our houses like those winged-termites (meru in sinhala) swarming around” said Chaminda Pushpakumara a resident near Dehiwala Railway station. “We tried to put them out, but it was just futile exercise” others in the community too shared similar experiences.

Sudden increase of Dragonflies were observed in other areas as well. Hemal Pieris who lives in Kynsey road in Borella found one in his upstair bathroom. “I haven’t seen a dragonfly in many years and delighted of seeing one inside my own house. I gently coaxed it to fly away through  the
window” Mr.Peiris said.

Responding to a post on the social media put by the team of MigrantWatch who promote observation of migratory species in Sri Lanka, many responded seeing sudden influx of dragonflies from different areas. Vishwamithra Kadurugamuwa made his observation at Town hall in colombo 7. “I Was actually telling my wife that it must be a dragonfly migration” Mr.Kadurugamuwa who had heard of the phenomena said.

The posibility that a mass migration of dragonflies could be happening across Sri Lanka was first observed in 2011 by Nashath Hafi who is a member of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka that setup its MigrantWatch program with intention to study the migration phenomena. “I was waiting for the train in Moratuwa railway station in the morning watching some birds at the time I observed wave of dragonflies. Usually the dragonflies flying casually on circular route, but all these were moving southward. Thousands of dragonflies were seen moving across and it was a spectacular scene” Mr.Hafi reminded his rare sight.

Mr.Hafi continued to observe the Southbound dragonflies from Moratuwa to all the way until Kollupitiya. When finding more information, the information about a dragonfly migration. Maldivian-based biologist Dr. Charles Anderson initially revealed about this migration which he suggest be happening across India to Maldives and all the way to Africa based on observations of mass aggravation of dragonflies in different areas. . According to Dr.Anderson’s study, the path dragonfly use has a distance of around 14,000 kilometres and could be called the world’s longest insect migration.

A Globe Skimmer Dragonfly found dehiwala

Dr.Anderson based on his data calculated the Dragonflies first appear in the capital city of Maldives on mean 21st of October on average. Quite interestingly the wave of Dragonflies was observed in Sri Lanka in 2011 was on 20th October. What is more surprising is this year the mass movement of dragonflies were observed on the same day – 20th of October. Dragonfly numbers peak in November and December, before the insects then disappear once more. The insects arrive in waves, with each staying for no more than a few days.

Indian observers also reported large agrevation of Dragonflies on Indian beaches. a dragonfly swarm reported from Mumbai coast on 14th Oct and different parts according to Sujith Chandran who is from Kerala. The migratory dragonflies fly along with the coast is observed in Indian.

According to Mr.Chandran, the communities in Keral coastal areas know this phenomena happened with the onset of Monsoon winds. “The locals believe the dragonflies emerge at time of when sun enters zordiac of Libra. In local language the Zordiac sign Libra is called ‘thula’ and dragonflies are called as ‘thumbi’- so locals call named them as ‘Thula Thumbi’”, said Mr.Chandran.

When interviewed, even the local coastal community – specially the members of the fishing communities live near coast are known of the phenomena, eventhough it is still least studied phenomena that came into light recently.

The species that involve in the migration are called as the globe skimmer or globe wanderer scientifically known as Pantala flavescens. The dragonfly is up to 4.5 cm long, that can have wingspans around 7.5 cm . They are good flier who tirelessly fly for hours without making any perch. The wandering glider flies in large swarms.

Globe skimmer is considered to be the most widespread dragonfly on the planet with good population on every continent except Antartica although rare in Europe according to the literature. According to a research by scientists at Rutgers University-Newark of USA studying the genes of Globe Skimmer found that specimen found from different areas of the world have similar genetic profiles so similar. They studied Pantala flavescens from USA, Canada, Japan, Korea, India, South America and interpret this similarities as a result of long distant migration.

Earlier this week, on the coastal areas observed in Dehiwala, Wellawaththa and Bambalapitiya, swarms of dragonflies consisting of 10 – 15 individuals could be commonly observed, but by the Friday, this number had decreased drastically spotting only few individuals according to the observers. This could indicate either the dragonflies moved away from Sri Lanka to continue their journey toward Maldives or spread inland. Perhaps part of the swarm moves away, while another stays. There are more questions for science to find out and if it could firmly establish, the Dragonfly migration could be yet another spectacular wildlife encounter Sri Lanka could be blessed to witness.

Report increase of dragonflies in your area

Have you seen an increase of dragonflies in your area..? If so, it could possibly be a migratory dragonfly. The MigrantWatch team of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) based at University Colombo welcomes your to contribute to their citizen science program to study this phenomena. You can send them your observations through email to migrantwatch.srilanka@gmail.com

Experts assess Sri Lankan species for Global Red List

November 3, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190929/news/experts-assess-sri-lankan-species-for-global-red-list-370638.html published on SundayTimes on 29.09.2019

Sri Lanka’s reptile experts gathered last week to assess the latest threat levels facing the country’s lizards and snakes.

The group of experts that participated at the recent workshop

During a six-day workshop at the Simpson’s Forest Hotel, they used some of the modern techniques to assess the threat levels these species have been exposed to, says Dr. Anslem de Silva, one of the organisers of the workshop, which also drew several foreign experts.

Sri Lanka is one of the global biodiversity hotspots (along with India’s Western Ghats), particularly for its high endemism of having creatures and plants that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

But many of these species are threatened with extinction due to different reasons and the first step to protect them lies on understanding the threat levels to prioritise conservation actions.

The experts used the criteria accepted by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assess the threat levels and list them in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The list devised in 1964 is also known as the ‘Red List’.

The IUCN Red List classifies species into nine categories based on assessments such as the rate of decline, the population size and the area of distribution. On the IUCN Red List, the term “threatened” embraces the categories of Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Vulnerable. When no living trace can be found of a species, it is categorised as “extinct”.

While the global Red List explains the threat level on a global scale, most countries have their own Red Lists based on threat levels assessed nationally. Sri Lanka published its last National Red List on 2012, but the criteria used in assessing the threat levels were slightly different.

Technically, a standard assessment is required to go into the global red list.

Dr. Simon Stuart, the former Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC)

Dr. Anslem de Silva

However, during the workshop, the standard method was adopted to assess the threat levels Sri Lanka’s lizards and snakes faced, said Dr. de Silva, who was recently honored as ‘Father of modern herpetology’.

He organised the workshop with the assistance of Dr. Kanishka Ukuwela and Sameera Karunarathne. The assessment was driven by the Zoo Outreach Organisation and some of the world’s well-known scientists proficient in IUCN Red Listing. They included Dr. Sanjay Molur, Dr. Neil Ashley Cox, Marcelo Fabio Tognelli, Philip Michael Bowles and Claudine Gibson. The latter had specifically visited Sri Lanka for the assessment.

Almost all the Sri Lanka experts working on reptiles were present at this workshop. Speaking to the Sunday Times, herpetologist Mendis Wickremasinghe said this kind of assessment was important as there was an extinction crisis Sri Lanka’s reptiles faced. The checklist of reptiles consists of 155 species in 1993 but by 2012, it grew upto 211, with half of them endemic to Sri Lanka. It keeps on ticking. However, due to habitat loss and other key reasons, Sri Lanka’s reptiles are becoming rarer.

The final report being co-authored by all the resource persons will be an important document in conserving Sri Lanka’s reptiles, Dr. de Silva said.
The Sunday Times also learns that a similar red listing assessment had been completed for Sri Lanka’s freshwater fish. The freshwater fish study was conducted a few months ago by the IUCN country office.

IUCN Sri Lanka’s Senior programme officer (biodiversity) Sampath Goonatilake said the assessment would appear on the global red list web portal in December. “It is really important to update the threat levels of species as this is the global inventory for conservation actions,” he said.

Meanwhile, experts are also getting ready to conduct a similar assessment for Sri Lanka’s amphibians to update their status on the Global Red List of Threatened Species. This was revealed at a speech by Dr. Simon Stuart, the former Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC).

The speech was organised by Dilmah Conservation that is assisting the assessment process. The Sunday Times learns that the Amphibian Workshop will be held towards end of this year.

“The world’s species extinction crisis is getting worse. There are 1.8 million described species live on Earth and about 100,000 of them are assessed for the Red List. Of them, about 27,000 are threatened – this is closer to one third of the species – so the picture is not seemingly good,” Dr.Stuart said, pointing out that 941 species were already ‘extinct’ or ‘extinct in the wild’ — surviving only in captivity. “While we need to do more, if we stop conservation, this extinction crisis would be 7-8 times worse, the expert warned.

There were some conservation problems that we could not easily fix, but not all were negative, he said, giving examples where some species started to bounce back from the edge of extinction. Giant Pandas, Californian condors, Indian rhinos and Humb-back whales are few of such examples.

Sri Lanka produced a number of country-specific national red lists, with the last red list being published in 2012. The next one is scheduled to be published after five years.

Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Secretariat Chief Padma Abeykoon said they would be able to publish the flora section of the Red List assessing national threat levels of plants, herbs and trees. She said that due to a number of issues, the fauna section would not be able to completed this year.

Beautiful colouration: Ornate flying snake and green pit viper. Pic by Ruchira Somaweera

Study will help protect anteater targeted by smugglers

November 3, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191103/news/study-will-help-protect-anteater-targeted-by-smugglers-376253.html published on SUndayTimes on 03.11.2019

Dr. Priyan Perera

A new study has taken the first step in Sri Lanka to shed light on an elusive, solitary mammal that is the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Last year, a live pangolin was rescued from a freezer in Chinese restaurant in Colombo, and the year before that, attempts to smuggle 130kg of pangolin scales that could have come from some 150 animals were found in Kalpitiya.

Pangolins are in high demand in East Asia and there are fears that, particularly with the large Chinese workforce in Sri Lanka, local pangolins are being increasingly targeted for flesh and scales rather than for low-level consumption as bushmeat by local communities.

The pangolin is one of the least studied mammals: there is very little data about their distribution, population or threats. Until now, our information mainly came from a 40-year-old report by W. Phillips.

To fill this void, an islandwide survey by researchers of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura resulted in a paper published last week that shows where these animals live and what threats they face.

Researcher Dr. Priyan Perera said the survey commenced in 2013 with a team conducting interviews with officers of Department of Wildlife Conservation villagers and even a few possible poachers.

The research team also reviewed records of rescued or dead pangolins stored in field offices of the wildlife department records of confiscations by the Department of Customs.

The pangolin is one of the least studied mammals

There are eight pangolin species in the world. The Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), is the species found in Sri Lanka, where it is known as “kebellawa” or “eya” in Sinhala and “alangu” in Tamil.

Pangolins are known as “scaly anteaters” because of the keratinised plate-like protective scales covering much of their bodies, and their highly specialised diet, which predominantly consists of ants and termites.

They coil into a ball when threatened and their scaly body armour usually protects them from the teeth and claws of jungle predators – but not from humans.

Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese “medicines” and this demand has created an illegal wildlife trade around the world.

Because of this, of the four Asiatic species, two are “critically endangered” and the other two are “endangered” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“The over-exploitation of Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) populations in Asia has led to an increase in the hunting of Indian pangolins in India and Pakistan,” Dr. Perera said. Smugglers now threaten Sri Lanka’s pangolin population, he warned.   There have been reported cases of pangolin meat offered for sale in restaurants, especially for Asian workers employed in megadevelopment projects in the country.

“Sri Lanka needs to be vigilant and stop the illegal international trade in pangolin parts before it is too late,” Dr. Perera said.

The study shows the highest number of wildlife crimes related to pangolins was recorded from the Anuradhapura District (13.54 per cent), followed by Polonnaruwa (12.50 per cent), Hambantota (10.42 per cent), Moneragala (9.38 per cent) and Kalutara (8.33 per cent).

The main exploitation threats facing Indian pangolins are hunting for subsistence (47.4 per cent), hunting for bushmeat (27.8 per cent), incidental capture in traps intended for pests (11.3 per cent), hunting for scales (6.2 per cent) and trading of live animals for meat (6.2 per cent).

The study shows pangolins can be found in all parts of the country, up to an elevation of 1850m, mainly in the north-west (Kurunegala and Puttalam districts), the Anuradhapura district and the south-west lowlands and south-east (Hambantota and Monaragala districts).

Pangolins are nocturnal animals and they sleep during the day in burrows, hollows or dens. They are solitary mammals, seldom seen in groups.

They usually give birth to one offspring, on rare occasions, two. The female carries its newborn on its tail. They are caring mothers that coil their bodies around their babies if a threat arises.

Researchers stress this study has important implications in national and global conservation planning of the species.

Call to protect native beauties: alarm over declining Orchid populations

October 13, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191013/news/alarm-over-decline-in-anuradhapura-orchid-population-call-to-protect-native-beauties-372890.html published on 13.10.2019

The Anuradhapura orchid – Vanda Tessellata — is Sri Lanka’s most heavily traded indigenous orchid species but over the past two decades its population has been on the decline, an expert has raised alarm.

A rare color variety of Anuradhapura Orchid (c) Samantha Gunasekera

Vanda Tessellata is an indigenous orchid species found in the dry and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka. As it has many colour variations, it is attractive and more prone to collection. Most of Sri Lanka’s orchids are spread in the wet and montane zones, but the Anuradhapura orchid grows in Sri Lanka’s dry zone and intermediate zone.“This orchid type is popular and their different colourations make them attractive. So, there is considerably a large demand for the flowers in the local and the export market. But the Vanda Tessellata population has heavily declined in the past 20 years due to the high demand and the lack of adequate conservation measures,” says the expert, Samantha Gunasekera, who was once the head of Sri Lanka Customs’ Biodiversity Protection Unit.

Like other orchids, the Anuradhapura orchid is also protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and included in the Vulnerable (VU) category on the National Red List. However, the law enforcement regarding the species is very poor, laments Mr. Gunasekera.

He revealed that although Customs had busted only attempts so far to smuggle the Vanda Tessellata plant out of the country, with one of the detections being made by the Forest Conservation Department. He said seven illegal local sale sites had been raided and two local suppliers of Vanda Tessellata had been identified through their surveys.

Mr. Gunasekera revealed these facts at an event organised by the Orchid Circle of Ceylon at the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) auditorium last month to celebrate its 85th anniversary. Established in 1934, the Orchid Circle of Ceylon (OCC) is the oldest organisation of its kind in Sri Lanka and the second in the world after the American Orchid Society. The Circle has a prestigious past with the founder President of the Orchid Circle of Ceylon being none other than Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake.

“Sri Lanka has lots of orchid lovers, so we revived the Orchid Circle of Ceylon to encourage more people to take the hobby right way. We are happy about the response we received for our society’s 85th Anniversary,” OCC secretary Dr. Uditha Herath said. The event was also associated with an orchid show that displayed some rare orchids.

The event’s Chief Guest, Prof. Surawit Wannakrairoj from Thailand, delivering a lecture on the fertilizer use in orchid cultivation, pointed out that in Sri Lanka the fertilizer usage was high. Orchid expert Ajantha Palihawadana delivered a speech on conservation of wild orchids.

Orchid Circle of Ceylon organized an orchid show last month

Sri Lanka is home to some 192 orchid species belonging to 78 categories and more than half of them are threatened according to the National Red List of Threatened Fauna and Flora of Sri Lanka 2012. Habitat loss remains the biggest issue for Orchid species with pollution, invasive species also contributing to their decline.

The direct exploitation where some of these orchids are fetched out from their habitat has been a bigger issue for a number of orchids, said Dr. Suranjan Fernando in the the 2012 National Red List publication. Those orchids commonly collected for their beautiful flowers include Phaius Wallichii (Star Orchid), Dendrobium Maccarthiae (Vesak Orchid), Rhynchostylis Retusa (Fox Tail), and Vanda Tessellata.

Habenaria Crinifera (Naarilatha), Ipsea Speciosa (Nagamaru Ala), Anoectochilus Spp (Wanaraja), Zeuxine spp (Iruraja) are removed from the wild for medicinal purposes and for various rituals associated with mythological beliefs, according to Dr.Fernando.

Many showy orchids like Vesak orchid (Dendrobium maccarthiae) are collected for their flowers (c) Bushana Kalhara

 

Young researchers explain sights and sounds of Lankan bats

October 13, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191013/news/young-researchers-explain-sights-and-sounds-of-lankan-bats-372898.html published on SundayTimes on 13.10.2019

As fans celebrated well-loved cartoon character Batman’s 80th birthday worldwide, two young Sri Lankan researchers say bats are master pathfinders and get at their prey by using echolocation which involves emitting sound and then analysing the reflected sonar signal captured through special sensors.

The Sunday Times met the two researchers at the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s Asia Pacific chapter (ATBC-AP) conference which was concluded recently in Thulhiriya.

“Different bat species emit signals with different frequencies in echolocation and these can be used to identify them in the field,” said Tharaka Kusuminda whose trailblazing research has led him to decipher the patterns of the Painted Bat’s call.

He said it was the first time that the Painted Bat’s eco-sounding had been deciphered and the second occasion that such a method had been used in the world. “Previously we needed to have visual evidence or need to catch the bat to find out conclusively whether a species is presence in one location. But we can now record the bat sounds in any area in Sri Lanka and can find out the presence of the Painted Bat in those locations by analysing bat sounds” said Mr. Kusuminda.

Gayan Mithra Edirisinghe

Explaining that this technique was increasingly being used to monitor distribution of bats around the world, Mr. Kusuminda said his team had also deciphered the patterns of echolocation of other Sri Lankan bats and was continuing to do so for other species.

Sri Lanka is home to 31 species of bats. Most bats being insectivorous feed on insects. There are also four species of fruit bats. A majority of bats – especially the insectivorous bats, use ecolocation techniques to navigate, said Mr. Kusuminda.

The painted bat (Kerivoula picta) — with an orange head and orange markings on its wings — is probably the most beautiful bat species in Sri Lanka. Painted bats prefer to make dried banana leaves their hideouts and come out in the evening. They seem to be having a good distribution in Sri Lanka. The lack of confirmed records had been a major drawback in establishing their distribution, but the new technique would be helpful to map their distribution, Mr. Kusuminda said.

It is only a few years ago that the 31st bat species in Sri Lanka was discovered by bat researcher Gayan Mithra Edirisinghe. It was a chance encounter.

The Painted Bat sometimes found in home gardens as well

“While studying bats in Maduru Oya area, we came across a roadkill. A bat had hit a speeding vehicle and had been crushed by its wheels. As its characters were different from other known bats, we carried out further studies. The research showed that it had features similar to an East Asian bat species called Phoniscus jagorii. So the new species was named as Phoniscus cf. jagorii. The ‘cf’ — meaning ‘closer to’ — was added to the name, since science needs more studies to distinguish them as a separate species.

The species has even been assessed for an inclusion in the upcoming Red List of threatened fauna. Mr. Edirisinghe said he was confident that this particular bat was a new species. But he said more research was required to establish this.

In an average home garden, a number of bat species can be observed. “Of the 31 bat species, only four feeds on fruits while the others are insectivorous. The insectivorous bats particularly feed on harmful insects. They consume a large number of mosquitoes in one night; so they are actually our friends’ Mr. Ediriweera said.

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The Painted Bat – the most beautiful bat in Sri Lanka

Tharaka Kusuminda studying a bat speciman

Lanka’s biodiversity a global heritage: Asia-Pacific scientists urge Govt. to intensify conservation efforts

October 8, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190922/news/lankas-biodiversity-a-global-heritage-asia-pacific-scientists-urge-govt-to-intensify-conservation-efforts-369502.html published on SundayTimes on 22.09.2019 

Tropical biologists and conservation scientists representing 29 countries have appealed to the Sri Lankan government to redouble its efforts to protect the country’s unique biodiversity which they describe as a global heritage.

Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke

The tropical biologists and scientists were in Sri Lanka to attend the four-day global forum of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation Asia-Pacific (ATBC-AP).

Sri Lanka is home to more than 8,600 plant and animal species, of which more than 1,600 are endemic to the island.

In their appeal, the experts call for the setting up of ecological corridors to link fragmented biodiversity-rich habitats, especially in Sri Lanka’s wet zone, the incorporation of the valuation of ecosystem services into Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and increased efforts to conserve the biodiversity in the Mannar region.

About 350 participants from 29 countries attended Conference held at the MAS Athena complex in Thulhiriya from September 10 to 13. Their appeal and recommendations were included in a end-of-summit communiqué which they called the Thulhiriya Declaration.

Established in 1963, the ATBC is one of the largest international scientific and professional organisations engaged in promoting research, education, capacity building and communication regarding the world’s tropical ecosystems. ATBC’s Asia Pacific Chapter was established in 2007 and the Thulhiriya conference was their 12th annual gathering.

The conference was inaugurated by President Maithripala Sirisena by planting an Atamba (Wild Mango) tree at the MAS Athena premises.
Addressing the gathering, the President said the tropical countries like Sri Lanka faced an imminent threat to biodiversity in the face of climate change, accelerated development efforts and population growth. He said it was important that scientists find ways address the problems by striking a balance.

The event’s co-chair, Dr. Sampath Seneviratne, justifying the decision to invite a political leader to inaugurate a conference on science, said: “We can discuss science within our own academic circles, but we need to take this knowledge beyond these walls toward policy level to make a real impact on conservation. That is one of the main reasons of getting the president of the country to inaugurate the ATBC-AP conference.”

To sustain the momentum of the conference, the organisers established the Sri Lanka Ecological Association (SLEA), a professional body, with the aim of providing advisory services to the Sri Lankan Government, the private sector and other stakeholders.

Adding some diplomatic lifelines to the science forum were French ambassador Eric Lavertu and Indian High Commission diplomat Sanjana Arya.

ATBC global President Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz

During the three-day conference, about 30 symposia were conducted through five parallel sessions where as many as 200 papers were presented.

Seven eminent local and international scientists delivered keynote addresses.

Before the conference was convened, several workshops covering technical subjects were conducted followed by research-oriented field tours.

ATBC-AP chairperson Dr. Enoka Kudawidanage said the conference offered opportunities for scientists and practitioners to gain new insights and knowledge while acquiring skills to contribute towards capacity building within the Asia-Pacific region.

“As there were foreign scientists with number of them eminent experts in their fields, the event had been particularly an opportunity for participants to get networking, collaboration and learning” said Dr. Kudawidanage, who was also elected as the Secretary of the ATBC-AP chapter for the coming year.

Professor Nimal Gunatilleke, the co-chair of the Scientific Committee of the conference, said Sri Lanka and India’s Western Ghatts were collectively considered as one of the global biodiversity hotspots, and therefore, the collaborative opportunities the event created were enormous.

India was represented by a contingent of about 60 scientists.

ATBC-AP chairperson Dr. Enoka Kudawidanage

The tropical region is the area near the equator and between the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere. The tropics comprise 40 percent of the Earth’s surface area; but have diverse habitats ranging from rainforests to deserts and from savannahs to mangroves. With most biodiversity hotspots spread in the area, the tropical zone is home to 80 percent of the earth’s species. But with India and China making up a part of the tropical regions, it is expected that the two countries would harbour half of the human population by 2030 causing huge pressure on natural ecosystems.

The conference became a forum for local researchers to meet experts from the Asia and Pacific region. Dr. Kanishka Ukuwela, who conducted a research on skinks in Sri Lanka, met an Indian scientist who is researching on skinks of India. “In this age of communication, we could collaborate through different means of technology – but it is not like sharing the research interests talking on a live chat face to face,” said Dr. Ukuwela after having a friendly skinky chat with his Indian counterparts.

ATBC global President Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz of the University of Nottingham told the Sunday Times that ATBC-AP were happy to be here in Sri Lanka, pointing out that there was a good diversity of delegates from different institutes and disciplines.

“Sri Lanka has a big role in tropical ecology and produced some of the eminent researchers such as Prof. Savithri Gunathilleke,” he said.

In 2016, Prof. Savithri Gunathilleke was honored as an ATBC Honorary Fellow – an award given to researchers who have provided life-long distinguished service to science and tropical biology.

Can Sri Lanka drive conservation through its ‘Sexy Beasts’…?

September 27, 2019
  • Though a global biodiversity hotspot with high endemism, Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism is driven by a select group of “charismatic” species, including the Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear, blue whale and sperm whale, none of which are endemic to the island.
  • Sri Lanka still relies on conservation paradigms set decades ago, aimed at protecting these high-profile animals, but experts call for the adoption of new conservation strategies to protect the island’s biodiversity, moving beyond the charismatic species.
  • A group of tropical biologists have called for the establishment of ecological corridors linking fragmented biodiversity-rich habitats in Sri Lanka’s wet zone to ensure the protection of unique endemic species not included among the charismatic species.
  • Often lost in the shadow cast by the charismatic species are a wealth of amphibians and reptiles, found nowhere else on Earth, with new species continuing to be discovered on an almost regular basis.

https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/sri-lanka-eyes-lucrative-charismatic-species-to-save-lesser-known-ones/ Published on Mongabay on 23 September 2019

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants. Around 300 can be seen at the annual “gathering,” when they congregate at a manmade reservoir in Minneriya National Park. Banner image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

COLOMBO — Wildlife conservation managers have long known that to protect a species, it helps if the animal is what’s known as charismatic: rare, endangered, beautiful, impressive, dangerous, or a combination of these traits.

This focus on charismatic species continues to drive conservation efforts and how they’re funded (think of Africa’s “Big Five”: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo).

For a country like Sri Lanka, though, the spotlight being shone on flagship species such as elephants and leopards is leaving the myriad more obscure species, found nowhere else on the planet, out in the dark.

That was the conclusion of a recent meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s Asia-Pacific chapter (ATBC-AP) in Sri Lanka: that there’s a high reliance on “marketing” the island’s “sexy beasts” to drive wildlife tourism, with little attention paid to the not-so-charismatic endemic species.

A leopard in Wilpattu National Park, courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.

“Charismatic animals often attract disproportionate amounts of research and conservation funding, commercial interest and public attention compared with other species,” said Ruchira Somaweera a Sri Lankan herpetologist and National Geographic Explorer. “As a result, they often play a significant role as surrogates for boarder biodiversity conservation aims We are all animals ourselves and follow these ‘sexiness’ traits. As it is an inherent, we should use it as an opportunity for conservation, using them as flagship species.”

Charismatics drive wildlife tourism

A glance at Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism industry gives an idea of the island’s charismatic species. The country is often promoted as being the best for big game safaris outside Africa, and the Ministry of Tourism has come up with its own version of the big five: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).

According to Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, a pioneer in branding and promoting Sri Lanka’s wildlife to the world, the island ranks first in the world in term of ease of viewing the first four of those species — an annual gathering of around 300 elephants in Minneriya National Park has been rated one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth — and is among the top 10 global destinations for sperm whale watching.

A sloth bear at Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka. The species is one of the largest bears in the tropics, and among the most elusive of the charismatic species. Image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

When it named Sri Lanka its top destination for 2019, travel guide publisher Lonely Planet emphasized the island’s rich fauna and flora. Statistics from the Department of Wildlife Conservation for 2018 show that Yala National Park in the country’s deep south ranked first in leopard-watching possibilities, recording nearly 630,000 visitors, more than half of them from overseas. This was followed by Horton Plains National Park, also home to leopards and visited by more than 410,000 people (nearly 120,000 foreign), and Udawalawe National Park, considered the best spot for observing elephants through the year.

Those species have in turn generated significant revenue for the parks. Yala topped the list last year with $5.7 million in receipts, followed by Horton Plains ($4.1 million) and Udawalawe ($2.4 million). Nearly half of all foreign tourists to Sri Lanka engage in wildlife tourism and visit at least one national park, according to Srilal Miththapala, a tourism industry specialist and promoter of nature-based tourism.

Sri Lanka offers some of the best opportunities in the world to watch a superpod of sperm whales, consisting of about 50 individuals. Image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

Opportunity vs. burden

But this level of popularity gives rise to various problems both for the wildlife and the managers of these national parks, who have to grapple with too many visitors. The whale watching industry, created without proper regulations, also prompted concerns in the early stages when boats were allowed to get close to the whales to give paying visitors a “better view.”

But the appeal of charismatic species should be seen as an opportunity rather than a burden, said Sampath Seneviratne from the University of Colombo. “We do live in a world where bigger environmental crises such as deforestation and climate change are threatening life on Earth. People have their own concerns and the need to preserve our ecosystems does not attract the expected political bite,” he said, adding that charismatic species and the love for them helps mainstream the need for species conservation.

In the case of Sri Lanka, however, conservation efforts have focused on the protection of the larger charismatic game animals found only in the island’s dry zone. But the island’s wealth of biodiversity lies in rather small endemic creatures — amphibians and reptiles, of which new species are discovered on an almost regular basis — mostly restricted to the wet zone and the central massif, said Eric Wikramanayake a conservation biologist who leads the wildlife and wetlands program of WWF- Hong Kong.

Wikramanayake compared Sri Lanka’s biodiversity to the workings of an airplane. “This airplane’s engine could be elephants. The flight computer could be the leopards. But what about the ants, bees, butterflies, earthworms and birds? Where do they fit in? We should not overlook the significant behind-the-scene contributions of the smaller species. They really are the nuts and bolts of the airplane. When they fail, we see a plane crash.”

Besides wintering migratory birds, there are many native species that can be seen in their natural settings here, such as this juvenile Serendib scops owl from deep within Sinharaja, Sri Lanka’s only rainforest. Image courtesy of Rajiv Welikala.

Adapting to dynamic ecosystems

While there’s been great emphasis laid on species-specific protection activities, prioritizing wildlife habitats with high ecosystem value is the need of the hour, according to conservation biologist Manori Gunawardena. What the former approach has meant is the designation of a sizable share of protected areas to conserving mega fauna. This has led to the disparate distribution of protected sites, with more of the dry lowland habitats covered than the highly threatened and biodiversity-rich wet-zone ecosystems.

The ATBC-AP meeting called for the establishment of biodiversity corridors in Sri Lanka’s wet zone to link the fragmented rainforest patches in a bid to scale up the conservation of endemic species. The conservationists’ recommendations are included in the outcome document, the Thulhiriya Declaration.

Wikramanayake called for new strategies to conserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, looking beyond the charismatic species.

“Our conservation priorities, approaches and strategies belong to the 20th century,” he said. “We still rely on conservation paradigms, thought processes and ideas from the 1940s and ’50s. In the meantime, the world is changing and passing us by. Ecosystems are dynamic, and conservation has to adapt.”

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants. Around 300 can be seen at the annual “gathering,” when they congregate at a manmade reservoir in Minneriya National Park. Banner image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

Unusual coloured snake turned out to be common wolf snake

September 26, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190922/news/unusual-coloured-snake-turned-out-to-be-common-wolf-snake-369563.html Published on SundayTimes on 22.09.2019 

A snake found in the premises of a temple in Hikkaduwa earlier this week, had residents and even experts in a quandary initially, with news reports of the discovery of an unidentified snake.

Hikkaduwa Wildlife Department officials said when the snake was handed over to them, there was even speculation that it might have originated from a foreign country as this temple received packages from Australia on a regular basis.

Adding to the puzzle was also the fact that the snake turned darker the following day.

The initial photographs of the snake even puzzled experts, but after checking more photographs Prof. Kalana Maduwage of the University of Peradeniya identified it as the common wolf snake (Lycodon aulicus). Explaining the change in colour, Prof. Maduwage said the wolf snake looks paler just before it sheds it skin and this snake would have been spotted just before it shed its skin. However, since the Hikkaduwa wildlife officers said that the snake had not shed its skin, it is believed that it was found soon after it had shed its skin.

The Common wolf snake is a non-venomous snake and is known as ‘Alu radanakaya’ in Sinhala. The snake found in Hikkaduwa was about two and half feet long. Though wolf snakes are common, experts say it is rare to see a full grown specimen in human habitation as they are often killed before they become adult snakes. The wolf snake usually has bands around it, sometimes mimicking the venomous Krait, But this snake didn’t have such bands leading to further speculation. “This snake had a different colouration than that of a wolf snake. A wolf snake with this kind of colour morph is described as Lycodon aulicus unicolor, Prof. Maduwage said. “I have come across many of this colour morph specimens in the Southern Province,” he added.

Leading snake expert Dr. Anslem de Silva also confirmed that this was a wolf snake. “There are many colour variations of this snake species,” Dr.de Silva said. “It is not unusual to have different colour forms of the same species in the snake world. For example, a survey of more than 500 cobras revealed that their spectacle marks were different from one another. There were cobras without markings as well,” Dr.de Silva explained.

Help to identify snakes just a click away
The website www.snakesidentification.org set up by Prof. Maduwage and some of his colleagues completes two years this week. One can upload an image of any snake that one encounters and get expert opinion on identification and other information. The website also assists doctors who need to identify snakes when patients seek treatment for snake bites.

Humble Hunas highlighted in Parliament Hansard

August 29, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190825/news/humble-hunas-highlighted-in-hansard-364842.html Published on SundayTimes on 25.08.2019 

The naming of six recently-discovered geckos after past Sinhalese warriors created controversy this week with Member of the Parliament Wimal Weerawansa calling it disgraceful.

One of the geckos that were named after a warrior- C. kivulegedarai.

The leading scientist behind the discovery, Sameera Karunaratne, protests that the new geckos, which are found only in Sri Lanka, were named thus simply to honour the forgotten national heroes.

Two of the geckos (known mostly by their Sinhala term,” huna”), were named after two members of king Dutugemunu’s 10 giant warriors, Gotaimbara and Nandimithra; they are, respectively, Cnemaspis nandimithrai and Cnemaspis gotaimbarai.

The other four geckos were named after great warriors that fought in the Uva-Wellassa rebellion against the British rule in 1817-1818 – Kohukumbure Walauwe Rate Rala, Meegahapitiye Walauwe Hitihami Mudiyanse Rate Rala, Butewe Rate Rala, Kivulegedara Mohottala. The geckos are, respectively C. kohukumburai, C. hitihami, C. butewai and C. kivulegedarai.

“The warriors Nandimithra and Gotaimbara are somewhat known but the warriors who fought in the 1817-18 rebellion in Uva-Wellassa are almost unknown other than their chieftain, Keppetipola Disawe. That is why we named these new Geckos after lesser known heroes,” Mr. Karunaratne said.

Sameera

He also described another gecko two months ago as Cnemaspis godagedarai in honour of Godagedara Rate Adhikaram, another warrior from Uva-wellassa.

Mr. Karunaratne has introduced eight geckos and four lizards new to science. All of them are endemic to the country. The latest discoveries were announced this week in the journal Vertebrate Zoology, an internationally accepted peer-reviewed scientific journal.

It is learned that a group even laid a complaint to police alleging that researchers were dishonouring national heroes. But through a statement issued to media, the Director of Cultural Affairs, Anusha Gokula Fernando, said it was common practice to name new species after prominent personalities and that there are bugs and frogs named after popular personalities.

Mendis Wickremasinghe, another Sri Lankan researcher who discovered more than 25 species new to science, points out that Sri Lankan heroes become globally known when wildlife species are named after them.

“I named a snake Aspidura Ravanai in honour of great king Ravana and another, Pseudophilautus puranappu, in honour of the Sinhalese warrior Puran Appu. That doesn’t mean disrespect,” he emphasised.

World-renowned expert on species discovery Rohan Pethiyagoda, whose research led to the discovery of more than 100 new species of amphibians and freshwater fish, also backed the new geckos’ names.

“Two years ago, some scientists discovered that the frog commonly found in the toilets in Yala was a new species and named them as Uperodon rohani in my honour. I’m delighted and grateful. And the fact that ‘my’ frog infests lavatory bowls is something I find hilarious, not offensive,” said Mr. Pethiyagoda.

“These politicians should lighten up a bit and get a life.”

Mr. Pethiyagoda is a former Deputy Chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s global Species Survival Commission.

“I myself named a Burmese fish Lates uwisara in honour of a Burmese national hero and many Burmese wrote to thank me for this,” he said.

“Politicians will say all kinds of silly things, especially in an election year.

Scientists should just ignore them and get on with science.”

Hope rises for threatened Sinharaja jumbos with radio collaring

August 3, 2019
Geofencing project could save human and elephant lives. Published on SundayTimes on 28.07.2019 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190728/news/deep-in-sinharaja-hope-rises-for-threatened-jumbos-360224.html

A hazardous operation to radiocollar one of the last remaining elephants of the Sinharaja rainforest has given new hope that both elephant and human lives can be saved when the two species collide.

The elephant was radiocollared on June 1 by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) following a strenuous operation in mountain terrain amid leech-infested rainforests.

Signals transmitted every four hours by the GPS collar show the elephant, known as Panu Kota, travelled 52km over the last two months (55 days), crossing two mountain ranges, the DWC’s Director of Veterinary Services, Tharaka Prasad, said.

Dr, Prasad said the signals could be used for “geofencing”, giving warnings if an elephant crosses the border of a village. He explained that a geofence is a virtual perimeter that can be pre-set on the application that uses to monitor elephant movements.

For example, a geofence can be set encircling a village so that whenever an elephant crosses that boundary, an SMS is transmitted to those monitoring the elephant’s movements. This message can be relayed to local DWC staff who can rush to the area and chase the animal back into the forest.

Collaring of Sinharaja Elephant (c) Dr.Malaka Abeywardana

Dr. Prasad said his officers are still working on the geofencing facility and, once set up, it would be an invaluable tool to manage the Sinharaja elephants. The collaring of Panu Kota was carried out with help from the Eco-system Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) through a project funded by the World Bank that will see 40 elephants collared in order to better understand their habits and reduce human-elephant conflict, Dr. Prasad said.

Historically, Sri Lanka’s wet zone rainforests teemed with elephants, but now only two, Panu Kota and Loku Aliya, both males, remain in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage. A female that had not been sighted for some time is believed dead.

Incursions into villages over the years by these elephants have cost 16 human lives, and last year villagers campaigned for the animals to be moved to another area.

The then minister of Wildlife Conservation, Sarath Fonseka, initially supported the villagers’ demand to relocation but this provoked environmentalists who wanted the elephants to be left free to roam. The DWC then decided to attempt using radiocollars for geofencing.

After being tracked for several days, Panu Kota was sedated by a team led by the area wildlife ranger, Kapila Ranukkanda, and veterinary surgeon, Malaka Abeywardena, in an area known as Dole Kanda.

Wildlife officers worried about how to safely sedate the lonely jumbo in difficult terrain. When an elephant is shot with a sedating dart it must be followed to make sure it does not fall awkwardly and suffocate through having its lungs blocked. If that happens, wildlife vets would have to immediately employ the reversing drugs to get the animal back on to its feet – a dangerous operation.

“We opted for a less powerful drug to sedate the jumbo,” Dr. Abeywardena said, adding that this would increase the risk for the team that followed the elephant but decrease the risk to the elephant. Panu Kota had a gunshot wound in one of its legs and the team used the opportunity to treat the injury, Dr. Abeywardena said. He estimated Panu Kota could be 35 years old.

Panu kota at boader of Tea Estate (c) Nisal Pubudu

Nisal Pubudu, a tea inspector in Pothupitiya, says most villagers in the area loves the animals, seeing them as a source of pride for their area. When a DWC team caught Panu Kota in 1999 to relocate him, villagers, particularly students at Kajuwatta School, protested and forced the release of the elephant.

The home range of the Sinharaja elephants could extend to 22,853 ha, spilling outside the protected area, said Shalith Karunaratne, a young graduate of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura who studied the rainforest elephants.

The elephants roam in seven secretariat divisions covering Kalawana, Kahawattha, Godakawela, Kolonna, Neluwa, Kotapola, Nivithigala, and 29 grama niladari divisions.

Mr. Karunaratne’s research, conducted with the support of ranger Kapila Ranukkanda, shows both the elephants moving around the Dolekanda, Rambuka, Rakwana South and Kathlana Grama niladari divisions from March to July when they are in musth and become aggressive.

At other times, they roam mainly in forest-edge habitats and, at the end of August, the elephants head towards the Morningside cloud forest area of Sinharaja.

This year, no deaths have been reported due to the elephants’ presence, and activists praise wildlife officers for their proactive measures to chase the elephants back into the forest whenever they are reported in villages. The radiocollaring data is expected to paint a more accurate picture about the elephants’ movements.

An instance where both Sinharaja Elephants are together (c) Shalith Karunarathne

Warrior of Wellassa rebellion lives on in tiny gecko

July 24, 2019

New Gecko Godagedaras’ Day Gecko – Cnemaspis godagedarai (c) Chen Lee

While Keppetipola Disawe is the best-known chieftain who fought in the 1817 Wellassa rebellion against the British, another warrior, often forgotten, has now been honoured in the naming of a newly-discovered gecko found only in Sri Lanka.

The name of the hero, Godagedara Rate Adhikaram, now lives on in Cnemaspis godagedarai, or Godagedaras’ Day Gecko, which inhabits a small area in Ensalwatte, Deniyaya, in the Matara district.

The new species is a diurnal gecko, active in daytime, unlike nocturnal species such as the common house gecko or “hoona”. It is tiny, 34-35mm long. In comparison, house geckos can grow to 75-150mm. Godagedaras’ Day Gecko was first observed by well-known herpetologist Dr. Anslem de Silva in 2018. Fellow researcher Suranjan Karunaratne combed the Ensalwatte area to find more geckos of same species and establish its identity scientifically.

Their study, co-authored by Aaron M. Bauer and Madhava Botejue, was published this month in the international herpetology peer-reviewed journal, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

The forest patches of Ensalwatte are linked to the Sinharaja rainforest and home to a number of creatures found only in the area. Only about six specimens of the newly-discovered gecko have so far been observed, causing it to be categorised as “critically endangered”.

Most geckos do not have eyelids and have to lick their own eyes to clean them of dust and dirt. Specialised toe pads help them to climb vertical surfaces such as walls, or even cross ceilings. Most geckos can detach their tails in defence. Mr. Karunaratne said Godagedaras’ Day Gecko has these abilities.

Sri Lanka’s list of geckos has now risen to 48 with this discovery; nearly all of them are not found anywhere else in the world. Most of the wild geckos are sensitive to environmental changes and most of their habitats are shrinking, making them a group vulnerable to extinction.

New gecko’s Habitat of Ensalwatthe (c) Suranjan Karunarathna

After a lengthy delay, still no green light for Sri Lanka’s red list

July 24, 2019
  • The rediscovery in recent years of species long thought to be extinct has sparked calls by scientists for an update of Sri Lanka’s red list of threatened species.
  • The current list is based on assessments from 2012, and a scheduled update in 2017 was missed because of procedural delays and resource constraints.
  • Conservationists have also called for the red-listing criteria used in Sri Lanka to be consistent with the global guidelines set out by the IUCN, in order to ensure consistency in conservation efforts.
  • They also want more species recovery initiatives based on the national red list, to make better use of the data to optimize conservation efforts.

freshwater crab – 50 out of 51 freshwater crabs found in Sri Lanka are Endemic (c) Nadika Hapuarachchie

International scientists to meet in Lanka on tropics crisis

June 29, 2019

International scientists will meet in Sri Lanka in September to discuss saving life forms in the tropics, where 80 per cent of all species live and where the greatest threats to biodiversity lie. Published on SundayTimes on 16.06.2019 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190616/news/international-scientists-to-meet-in-lanka-on-tropics-crisis-353692.html 

Tropical region is home to diverse habitats (c) Ruchira Somaweera

“About 200 world-renowned scientists are expected to participate in this conference, organised by the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC)’s Asia-Pacific Chapter,” Dr. Enoka Kudavidanage, conference chair and ATBC country representative said.

Discussions will take place with a heightened sense of urgency as a key United Nations study predicts that 1 million species risk extinction.

“The bonds that hold Nature together may be at risk of unravelling from deforestation, overfishing, development and other human activities,” National Geographic stated, reporting on the results of the UN Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services issued in May.

The tropics, which encompass 40 per cent of the Earth’s surface area, has diverse habitats ranging from rainforests to deserts, savannah to mangroves that are threatened by deforestation, overfishing, poaching, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.

The knowledge aired at the conference would help scientists dealing with biodiversity problems in Sri Lanka, conference co-chair, Dr. Sampath Seneviratne of the University of Colombo, said.

The event would be a good opportunity to put Sri Lanka at the “focal point of conservation science at this important juncture”, said Professor Savitri Gunatilleke, Emeritus Professor at the University of Peradeniya.

Dr. Gunatilleke, who was awarded Honorary Fellowship of the ATBC in 2016, the first Sri Lankan to be honoured thus, pointed out that this country had a number of “renowned conservation scientists and many young researchers who aspire to be successful scientists of tropical biodiversity”.

The ATBC conference, the first of its kind to be held in Sri Lanka, will take place at MAS Athena, Thulhiriya from September 10-13. Visit http://atbcap2019.org/index.html for details.

Founded in 1963, the ATBC is the world’s largest and oldest academic society dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems. As many as 65 countries are involved in its activities.

Meanwhile the much-hyped World Wildlife Conference (CITES COP18) has been postponed to October pending security clearance following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks.

Authorities hope this conference, which hundreds of foreign scientists are expected to attend, will boost the tourism industry which was devastated by the bombings, carried out by Islamic militants in churches and hotels on April 21.

Most of the earth’s biodiversity hotspots are in tropical region

Attempt to ‘Rescue’ wild cat babies could backfire

October 14, 2018

Two wild cat cubs were found in a tree cavity several days ago by workers at the Bogawantalawa tea estate. The mother could not be spotted so the workers carefully took the cubs away, thinking they had been orphaned.

The Nallathanniya Beat Office of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) was alerted to the find on October 4 and rushed to the estate where they found that the cubs were young fishing cats only a few days old.

The cubs were in good shape, said wildlife ranger Prabash Karunatilleke. He told the people who found them it was best to take them back to their hiding place because their mother would return for them.

“Fishing cats usually hide their babies when they need to go out on brief hunting trips to find food. Perhaps the mother ran away in fright at the approach of the estate workers, but it would have been around,” Mr. Karunatilleke said.

Wildlife officers put the babies back in the tree cavity and cleared the area of people. When they returned to the site the next morning the babies were not there. Fresh pug marks around the tree indicated the mother had taken her babies to another hideout, Mr. Karunatilleke said.

The wildlife officers had acted sensibly in putting the cubs back in the tree cavity, fishing cat experts said, adding that worried members of the public often believe they are performing an act of kindness in “rescuing” apparently abandoned fishing cat cubs when in fact they were separating babies from their mother.

“If you find a fishing cat cub just check the surrounding area for predators. If the cub seems to be safe, just wait and keep your distance as the mother won’t come if it feels your presence,” fishing cat expert Anya Ratnayake said.

“If the mother does not appear even after about two hours, then there is a chance that the cubs have been orphaned due to some tragic thing having happened to the mother.

“Then, and only then, take the initiative to help them,” Ms. Ratnayake advised.

“The cubs of all our wild cats, including leopards, are adorable and it is difficult to resist the urge to help them, but being with the mother is their best chance of their survival.”

Carnivores are difficult to rehabilitate and be released back to the wild as grown animals, wild cat experts emphasised. It is difficult to teach a baby wild cat the techniques of hunting and other skills that cats need to survive in the wild and which they learn from their mother.

Many fear the fishing cat, known as “handun diviya” in Sinhala. Ms. Ratnayake and fellow young fishing cat expert Ashan Thudugala are doing a good job trying to educate the public about this species.

The fishing cat is a medium-sized wild cat that lives in wetlands. They are nocturnal and secretive wild cats so studying them is difficult for researchers.

Fishing cats face many kinds of dangers. They adapt to wetlands in busy cities, even in Colombo, so are often run over and killed by accident when trying to cross roads.

They are also often caught in snares set primarily for wild boar in many areas. The loss of their wetland habitats is also a major problem.

Published on SundayTimes on 14.10.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181014/news/rescue-of-wild-cat-babies-backfires-315532.html 

NOTE: Experts opined that the cubs found on Bogawanthalawa are infact the cubs of the Rusty-spotted Cat; world’s smallest wild cat.  

Fishing cats often become roadkill. Babies could go orphaned, if mother get killed or translocated elsewhere (c) Toshan Wijerathne – Near Kirala Kele, Matara

Brutal harvesting of gal siyambala treat leaves sour taste

September 2, 2018

With the gal siyambala season at its height experts are warning that unsustainable harvesting methods are pushing the fruit tree towards extinction while prices for the product have soared. Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180902/news/brutal-harvesting-of-gal-siyambala-treat-leaves-sour-taste-309655.html

Gal Siyambala tree laden with fruit (c) Ashan Geeganage 

With its velvet coat and sweetish acidic taste the gal siyambala or velvet tamarind has been a delicacy for generations.

The velvet tamarind tree (Dialium ovoideum) grows in evergreen monsoon forests and near rivers, especially in dry and semi-arid zones. It is not cultivated, so the fruit is harvested directly from the trees in the forests.

Increasingly, the harvesting is greedy and brutal, with little regard for conserving the health of the tree. Organised gangs from nearby villages go into the forest and chop down entire branches of the trees in order to pluck the fruit off them. It is common to find the remnants of these cut branches left under the trees.

Last week, 50g of gal siyambala fetched Rs. 80 at Dehiwala, with vendors lamenting that the fruit’s rarity increased the price.

Decades ago, gal siyambala could be found in large heaps at roadside fruit stalls and markets from August, when its season begins. Blooms appear on the trees from February to April and the fruits come on the market from August to November.

“At the end of August we visited a forest patch in Siyambalanduwa,” said Dr. Ashan Geeganage, who lives in Moneragala and has been lucky enough to taste the fruit directly from the tree.

“We found several gal siyambala trees, but only two of them had fruit. The fruits on the other trees had been plucked and some of the trees were chopped up very badly,” he said.

The head of the Department of Crop Science at the University of Peradeniya, Professor D K N G Pushpakumara, said this kind of harvesting was destructive and affected the fruiting of the following year’s crop.

Velvet tamarind trees are also cut down for the value of their timber as they can grow 30m high.

The species is now classified as “vulnerable” to extinction. The National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka: Conservation Status of the Fauna and Flora, published by the Department of the Environment, lists 177 plants as “possible extinct” while a third of 3,154 species of Sri Lanka’s flora are listed as “threatened”.\

While the global IUCN status remain ‘Least Concern’; the tree had been pushed to ‘Vulnerable’ in National RedLIst 2012

Whip-tailed marine beauty spotted in Menik Ganga river

August 30, 2018

Yala is a paradise for spotted animals such as leopard and deer, but the spotty creature found last week in the Manik Ganga near Kosgasmankada was unusual. Published on SundayTimes on 26.08.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180826/news/whip-tailed-beauty-spotted-in-yalas-menik-ganga-308087.html

A party having a dip in the river’s shallows found a long-tailed creature with a disc-shaped body patterned with many small dark spots or reticulations. From one end to the other, it was about 1 foot long. Biologist Rex I. De Silva identified the creature from a photograph sent to him by bather Geemal Harold as a honeycomb stingray or banded whiptail stingray (Himantura uarnak).“The honeycomb stingray is a common marine species in our coastal waters but finding one in freshwater is unusual,” Mr. De Silva said.

The stingray is named after the barbed stinger on its long tail, which is primarily used in self-defence. Rays and skates are flattened fish closely related to sharks. They do not have hard bones like other fish but a skeleton of flexible cartilage such as found in the human ear and nose.

Marine sharks and rays occasionally enter freshwater during spring tides, Mr. De Silva said. In times of drought, when river levels fall, seawater intrudes some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species follow the seawater for a considerable distance upriver.

Shark sightings in the Menik Ganga have been recorded over the past 30 years but not sightings of rays.

The disc-shaped body of the honeycomb stingray found by Mr. Harold’s party was about 30.5cm (one foot) in diameter but the species can grow up to 2m (6.6 feet), so the one found in Yala would be a young stingray that decided to have an adventurous journey upstream.

The stingray’s tail, called “maduwa” in Sinhala, which can be three times its body length, was dried and used in olden times as a whip for punishment, the barbs on the tail inflicting great pain.

Shark spotted near warahana 2016 (c) Janaka Karunaratne

Rays are masters at bottom-dwelling. They have eyes on the top of their head/body and so relies on other senses in finding food (crustaceans, small fish, snails, shrimp etc.) on usually murky ocean beds.

Special organs on their face called ampulae allow them to navigate and find prey with electromagnetic signals.

Sadly, stingray numbers are in decline due to over-fishing, habitat loss and climate change. At present, 539 species of ray are on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of endangered species, with 107 classified as threatened. The honeycomb stingray is categorised as “vulnerable”, making this Yala sighting special.